Which ads won Christmas? Biometrics read emotional reaction to reveal who packed the biggest festive punch

At the most emotive time of year, creative agency Brave has brought science into the equation with the Bravery Index. Could biometrics reveal whether or not the annual John Lewis tearjerker could be knocked off its pedestal?

For most of us, Christmas starts long before we travel home to our families, put a turkey in the oven or pull a cracker. Instead, it’s when the first Christmas ads hit our TV screens that the season really begins.

The undeniable landmark event in Britain’s advertising calendar – when retailers, fashion houses, chocolatiers, banks and more all spend millions in their bid to play a role in the festivities – touching stories, hilarious sketches and celebrity endorsements are all employed to connect with audiences and trigger an emotional connection, at one of the most emotive times of year.

And then comes the debate about who ‘won’ Christmas – whose investment paid off and earned the adoration of consumers? Brands and agencies alike are put under serious scrutiny, because these seasonal campaigns are, for most, their biggest single piece of activity of the year.

But while creative directors nationwide argue and journalists fill column inches about which brand has risen above the competition, London creative agency Brave has taken a different approach and brought some objectivity to the discussion.

“Our industry often forgets that these ads are not created for us, and to genuinely answer ‘Who won Christmas?’ we need to look to the public,” says Felix Morgan, Brave’s innovation lead.

The most obvious solution is a focus group, but this is equally flawed methodology, he tells us.

“Creatives often talk about focus groups as ‘where ideas go to die’ and with good reason.

“Emotional ads are proven to be more effective than rational ads, yet focus groups encourage people to rationalise instinctive emotional reactions. As Daniel Kahneman explained in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, people have a fundamental challenge rationalising their emotional decisions, due to the two different thinking systems – meaning focus groups are far less effective than we realise.”

Instead of forcing people to retrospectively rationalise, Morgan and his agency saw an opportunity to bypass this process and measure their responses directly.

“Employing biometric methods, the Bravery Index helps brands gain an understanding of how consumers will react to their content in a fast, lean and scalable way.”

A combination of sensors (galvanic skin response, facial coding, eye-tracking), algorithmic intelligence and expert analysis provides a rich understanding of the emotional effectiveness of an ad’s content. Brave invited 24 test subjects, spanning a range of ages, mixed genders and broader demographics, to its lab, and over a week of testing hooked them up to its Bravery Index system to understand exactly how the general public was reacting to the UK’s five most talked-about ads.

Here Morgan takes us through the results.

Argos

“While most brands are appealing to warm emotions (comfort, empathy, togetherness), Argos adopts a very different approach, combining emotion (exhilaration) with rational (fastest service ever) as it follows people undertaking extreme sports, racing to pick up the season’s hottest gifts.

“With four per cent of overall social chatter, Argos didn’t cut through as significantly as John Lewis or Sainsbury’s, but received reasonable attention due to its unconventional concept. Its moderate score could be down to rational messaging dampening emotional engagement. With the second lowest ‘joy’ score (26 per cent) and second highest ‘sadness’ (45 per cent), the biggest spike in engagement came when the Minions were featured, although even this was polarising with some responding negatively.

“Argos clearly generated strong word of mouth (one of the top five talked-about ads on social), but demonstrates the tricky balance of emotional and rational creative. Brands adopting a more single-minded emotional approach seem to have benefited from deeper engagement and overall impact.”

Currys PC World

“Another brand taking an unconventional approach was Currys. By recruiting the talents of Jeff Goldblum, it created a very funny campaign supposedly teaching people how to hide their disappointment when given bad gifts. While Currys only received 4.6 per cent of the social chatter, this comprised an impressive 89 per cent positive sentiment.

“Currys’ was the second highest score, just two points behind John Lewis. It also received the highest positivity (43 per cent) and joint-lowest negativity (24 per cent), demonstrating an incredible effectiveness for its comedic approach.

“Audiences resonated well with the ads’ humour, particularly Goldblum’s comic timing. The sum engagement increased over time and ended strongly.

“Overall, Currys’ was one of the most successful campaigns tested. While it had a slightly lower Bravery Score than John Lewis, it was effective at delivering the emotions it aimed for, and left audiences with very positive feelings.”

John Lewis

“John Lewis’ Christmas ads have achieved the rare feat of becoming part of our wider culture. Their release is a national event, with countdowns on news sites and super-fans hosting viewing parties. This year was no exception, with fever rising to unprecedented levels. At the time of writing ‘Man on the Moon’ has 17m views and has been tweeted some 180,000 times. It received 60 per cent of the overall conversation about Christmas ads.

“John Lewis received the highest Bravery Score of ads tested, evoking very strong emotions with our test audience. Interestingly, the ad gave least ‘joy’ to viewers, triggering positive emotions for only 18 per cent of its duration. This would be concerning if it wasn’t for its high measure of ‘sadness’, which people experienced for 55 per cent of the ad. For many brands this would be bad, but it is a positive reflection on John Lewis’ single-minded strategy.

“There was building sadness throughout, but as the balloons reach the moon there was a significant spike in joy and a decrease in all negative emotions.”

Sainsbury’s

“Until recently, Sainsbury’s wasn’t really considered among the big Christmas advertisers. After 2014’s ‘Christmas Is for Sharing’, however, there was much anticipation to see how this would be followed up.

“The latest ad features Judith Kerr’s Mog the cat, who almost ruins Christmas in a series of bizarre mishaps, only for the neighbourhood to band together and save it. Despite being released a week after most of the competition, it instantly became the second most discussed ad in the country, taking an overall share of voice of 9.2 per cent.

“To our surprise Sainsbury’s received the second lowest score of the ads tested. It had the second highest measure of ‘joy’, particularly correlating with increases in pace and intensity in music, as well as the visual humour. However, there were long periods where people were left unengaged, indicating it was perhaps too long. Although failing to sustain emotional intensity, the ad did have periodic highs and, while Sainsbury’s was definitely not the best performer in our Bravery Index, there were points that resonated very strongly.”

Tesco

“The final ad tested was Tesco’s. In a departure from its traditional approach, Tesco created a series of comedic shorts focused on one family (part of a longer-term campaign seeking to familiarise people with the characters and build long-term equity). Unlike others, the ad led with quite rational benefits – bringing to life the ways Tesco can help shoppers during this busy period. While wrapped in humour, it was one of the less emotionally driven.

“Tesco received the lowest score, making it the least emotionally engaging of the ads. It triggered mixed responses, polarising the audience significantly. While 42 per cent had positive reactions, enjoying the humour and increasing engagement throughout, 58 per cent had negative reactions, even experiencing anger as jokes were made and decreasing in engagement over time.

“While Currys successfully took a humour-focused route, Tesco failed to connect with people and struggled with overall engagement – a disappointing result and one of the worst performers in our test.”

Summary

“The two big winners are John Lewis and Currys. The former can be applauded for its creative bravery, using emotionally laden sadness at a time of year most associated with happiness. Its single-minded strategy is effective for John Lewis and results in an impactful, engaging piece of content.

“Currys took the opposite route, highlighting a simple human truth and wrapping it in humour. This performed equally well and demonstrates the opportunity for brands to take a comedic route, provided casting and production are done well.

“The biggest underperformance came from Sainsbury’s. Despite a positive response on social, our study shows its ad was not fulfilling its potential to connect with audiences and could benefit from tighter editing and a more single-minded approach.

“The final two ads, Argos and Tesco, tried to deliver rational messaging wrapped in exhilaration and humour respectively. This did not resonate as well as expected, highlighting the difficulty in balancing rational and emotional messaging at such an emotive time of year. Advertising that connects emotionally with audiences is the key to long-term brand building and commercial success. This exercise, however, proves achieving that is far from easy.”

Felix Morgan is innovation lead at Brave. The agency’s newly launched Bravery Index uses biometrics to measure emotion in an attempt to de-risk creative bravery for clients. Find out more and see the full results of the study here.

This article was first published in the 9 December issue of The Drum.

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